Are Sprinklers the Answer to School Fire Safety?

Are Sprinklers the Answer to School Fire Safety?

Nearly one year has passed since the tragic “Our Lady of The Angels” School fire which occurred in Chicago on December 1, 1958. Due to the nationwide shock which followed this disaster, much publicity has been given to efforts to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again and some progress has been noted. Yet in spite of all warnings by national fire protection authorities, exceptions to many of the suggested safety measures have been expressed in some areas. As a general rule these have been based on the economic factor. However, some opposition has questioned the evidence that exists to support recommended proposals for safeguarding life.

School fire safety has been subjected to much statistical research in recent months to catalog the necessary supporting evidence. One example of this work is contained in a brief submitted by the National Automatic Sprinkler and Fire Control Association to the Building Research Advisory Board of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council for use during the Conference on Safety to Life from Fire in Elementary and Secondary Schools. The association pointed out to the conference that the fire records of this country show that a school fire breaks out every two hours of the day. Further it stated that there have been 957 recorded deaths in 94 unsprinklered schools since 1900. During the same period there have been 167 fires in sprinkiered schools without loss of life!

The association then established their reasons for a fire control strategy which would be geared to meet unpredictable fire starts in school buildings. It pointed out that an analysis of the place of origin in 300 typical school fires indicated no intelligible pattern which will permit planning for a “zone” defense. Of some 18 locations where the fires started, classrooms, with 16 per cent, led the list, followed by unused areas, furnace rooms and storage areas in that order as the major places of origin. The remaining locations were so numerous that the association felt that only complete sprinkler protection would provide any certainty for a safe school building.

Elsewhere in these pages is a report of the recently concluded Los Angeles school fire tests which have provided a wealth of information concerning fire behavior in a typical educational structure. It must be noted that the research carried out during these tests is the first recorded instance of actual burning experiments of a common-type school building. Its true impact cannot be fully measured at this moment. Only time and new experience will draw out the findings to their fullest value.

The Los Angeles Fire Department, faced with school fire safety problems as serious as those which burden practically every community in this country, found a way to scientifically test building materials and methods as well as fire protection practices. In cooperation with many other interested agencies and companies, it has conducted actual fires in a school building and documented the evidence obtained. Many interesting conclusions have been arrived at, which in the main, support previous contentions of fire service officials.

According to press accounts the final results of the Robert Louis Stevenson School fire tests vary little from the original observations expressed by Los Angeles Fire Marshal Raymond Hill at the NFPA’s Atlantic City conference earlier in the year. At that meeting, Hill stated that the only time during the fires that the observers found the test building tenable was when complete automatic sprinkler protection was provided. He has amplified this further by the comment that complete sprinklers in a building maintain a low temperature during a fire and help prevent a rapid buildup of smoke and gases which can otherwise impede evacuation. The tests showed that when sprinklers were installed only in exit ways and not in the actual fire area they did not prevent dangerous smoke and gases from entering school corridors.

The tests have proven the importance of rapidly evacuating schools and emphasize the hazards that face children during this critical period. This is based upon the practical realization that the time required for a fire to cause an alarm or to be discovered, plus the additional time necessary for fire companies to respond to the scene once an alarm has been received, is too long to guarantee the life safety of the pupils. Marshal Hill sums up this conclusion by the comment that it is futile to expect that fire fighters can reach the scene of a major fire in time to make extensive rescues. Built-in safeguards are a necessity for once started, fire waits for no man, woman or child!

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